Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Some Provisions of Obama Administration’s Fatherhood Initiative Raise Concerns

Meridel Bulle-Vu, Staff Attorney

Meridel Bulle-Vu, Staff Attorney

This past weekend, we recognized and celebrated the fathers in our lives.  Many of us are lucky to know first-hand what research has since confirmed: the stable presence of an involved and loving father significantly affects child health and development, including for the 40 percent of all children born to unmarried parents.  We applaud President Obama’s efforts in his FY2014 budget to highlight the importance of active father-child relationships.   We whole-heartedly support some of the policy changes proposed in the Child Support and Fatherhood Initiative, such as the proposal to encourage states to “pass-through” the entire current child support payment to custodial parents who receive Temporary Assistant for Needy Families (TANF) rather than retaining some or all of the child support as reimbursement for the TANF money that the government pays to the custodial parent.  Such a change could increase non-custodial parents’ (often fathers) willingness to pay child support while simultaneously reducing childhood poverty levels and dependence on government benefits.  However, we share the concerns that Professor Lisa Martin raised in a recent blog she wrote about the proposed requirement that states establish visitation orders at the same time that they file for an initial child support order.

In our family law practice and particularly through our court-based Child Support Resource Center, we witness daily how emotionally challenging child support cases are.  As Professor Martin explains, the vast majority of cases litigated in the Paternity and Support Branch are initiated by the government as a result of the custodial parent’s receipt of TANF benefits.  The non-custodial parents (often fathers) are frequently upset at being brought to court, and the custodial parents (often mothers) are frequently upset at not having had a say in whether the case was brought or how it should proceed.  But more than anything, everyone is upset at the government’s intrusion into the inherently private matters of family and finances.   A law that would increase that intrusion by requiring an inquiry into custody would only further exacerbate matters and would unnecessarily deprive our clients of the autonomy of deciding for themselves what’s best for them and their families.

While some fathers are eager to be involved in their children’s lives, others are not.  The same is true in the reverse: some mothers are eager for their children’s fathers to be a part of their lives, and others are not – oftentimes for good reasons, such as domestic violence.  The judicial system can order fathers to support their children, but no one can force a father to be a good dad.  Those that want to take an active role either already are or already have the option of filing for custody or visitation.  To encourage the remainder of fathers to step up, we urge President Obama to look to research-based interventions that have proven outcomes in terms of child support and father involvement.

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